I boozed with East End’s fiercest gangsters to study their dark world – only one man I met was ‘100% criminal’

Nervously ringing the doorbell, Dick Hobbs waited for the voice of ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser – the notorious East End gangster known for pulling his victims’ teeth out with pliers.

Even within the vast underworld of criminals the sociologist has met over the decades, Fraser remains a stand-out, having risen to infamy during the ‘torture trials’ of Kray rivals The Richardson Gang.

Hulton Archive - Getty
Among the many terrifying figures of the East End underworld were Kray Twins, Ronnie and Reggie[/caption]
Western Sydney University
Dick Hobbs lifts the lid of some of the East End’s most prolific gangsters[/caption]

“Frankie was something else,” says Dick. “He’s the only one I’ve met that was 100% criminal from top to bottom.

“He must have been about 70 at the time – he was only 5ft4 but he had this gigantic presence.”

Nowadays, Dick is one of Britain’s leading criminal experts, with a lofty career working on research for the Government and a spell at Oxford University.

But the 70-year-old learned almost everything he knows growing up on the “buzzing” streets of London’s East End.

Immersed in the underworld from a young age, the academic’s research took place in smoke-filled boozers rather than books.

And he rubbed shoulders with infamous crime lords such as Fraser and Charlie Richardson, even counting some of them as close friends.

Back in the day everyone met in the pub – my map of the East End was pubs,” says Dick. “We’d meet in the Dog and Duck and then go on to the Red Lion and that’s what we did.

“The docks were buzzing – and so was crime. There were boxes going into pubs and clubs – someone could always get you a sweater or a leg of lamb.”

Dick trained as a sociologist at the LSE and the University of Surrey before working at the Universities of Oxford and Durham, where he held chairs in both Sociology and Law.

At first, his fellow academics were a bit skeptical of his links to crime – but they were soon sidling up to Dick because of his connections.

“People were a bit wary of me at first and then they kind of accepted it and would come to me and ask about stolen goods,” he says.

“And this was Oxford University – absolutely everyone wants a bargain.

“I didn’t do it because I didn’t trust them to keep their mouth’s shut.”

The academic’s new book The Business traces the changing nature of crime from the bustling days of theft on the East End docks to the modern-day drugs trade.

Back when Dick was growing up in Plaistow crime was a “way of life” and “taken for granted”.

“There was a crime apprenticeship back then,” Dick says. 

“Most people would stay at that low level but some – those that were good at it – would think about it as a future career.”

Asked if he was tempted to get involved in crime himself, Dick wisely replies “no comment”.

He said: “Did I go burgling or climbing into the back of lorries? No, I didn’t do that. But did I occasionally benefit from someone else taking the risk? Yeah, I did. 

“It was just a way of life – I was an ordinary bloke doing ordinary things. Some people chose to take that step further.

“Some of them were nicked, most of them weren’t.”

‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser was not a successful criminal’

One notorious criminal that he spent a fair bit of time with was former London gang member “Mad” Frankie Fraser.

He recalls meeting Fraser for the first time in the early 90s for an interview with the underworld enforcer who would infamously pull people’s teeth out.

Buzzing the entry phone, Fraser introduced himself over the telecom as the then-Prime Minister John Major.

And then – “after what seemed like a very long pause” – said: “Just joking boy, come on up.”

As the notorious gangster boiled the kettle, Dick’s eyes couldn’t help but settle on a “huge” box of Clairol hair dye on the kitchen shelf.

“I was just trying not to stare at it,” he laughs.

Fraser eventually died in hospital in 2014 aged 90 after undergoing surgery on his left leg.

He spent almost half of his life in prison.

“He was an amazing character but not a successful criminal – he spent 42 years in prison,” Dick admits.

‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser tortured victims by pulling their teeth out with pliers[/caption]
Hulton Archive - Getty
Career criminals at a party at Gennaro’s restaurant in Soho, 1955. Left to right: Soho Ted, Bugsy, Groin Frankie, Billy Hill, Ruby Sparkes, Frankie Fraser, College Harry, Frany The Spaniel, Cherry Bill, Johnny Ricco, a female journalist, Russian Ted and a publisher[/caption]
The ‘Blind Beggar’ Public House on Whitechapel Road in Mile End, East London. The pub gained notoriety when on 11th March 1966 Richardson gang associate George Cornell was shot and killed. Ronald Kray was charged with his murder[/caption]

Krays’ rival ‘broke the gangster stereotype’

He lavishes greater praise on leading south London gangster Charlie Richardson.

Charlie was the head of the notorious Richardson gang, the main criminal rivals to the Krays in the 1960s. 

In 1967 he was sentenced to 25 years following the so-called “torture trial”, in which it was alleged that the gang’s victims were subjected to horrific violence including electrocution and burning.

But Dick paints him as a shrewd businessman.

“He was one of the first villains who really broke away from the thuggish gangster stereotype and got into business,” he says.

“He started with fraud and then went on to mill mining in Africa. He got into some astonishing things.

“I only got to know him later on – he had a habit of calling me up on Monday evenings.”

Charlie died of peritonitis aged 78 in 2012.

Despite being immersed in their world, Dick says he counts “just two” gangsters as friends.

One of them is Terry Jackson whose son Dick taught in his “brief” career as a school teacher before finding academia aged 30.

“I ran the school football team and he thought the kids needed a team bus so he went and bought an old security van and hand-painted it in the team’s covers, threw a load of old cushions in the back and we had a team bus,” he says.

“He was this Bob Hoskins persona – he had a lot of charisma. And he was at it, he was a thief. He was jumping in the back of lorries – he was doing factories, offices.

“I got to know him well and he became a good friend of my family.” 

In 2006 – at the age of 58 – he went to prison for the first time. 

Terry, now 73, was convicted for his part in a major counterfeiting case that allegedly threatened “the fiscal well-being of the British State”.

But before his time behind bars, he used to dabble in all sorts.

Dick recalls one night drinking at Terry’s former East End pub the Steamship – when his pal returned victorious from a successful job.

“Terry and some others had done a warehouse brought in this Italian branded logo leisurewear,” he says.

“Everyone was sending drinks over because Terry had had this huge coup robbing this place.

“At first I thought I’d had too much to drink when I looked up and everyone was wearing this gear with the Bonetti brand name written across it.

“There were little kids playing pool with a sweatshirt on, the women behind the bar, the OAPs.”

Crime ‘definitely more dangerous now’

Dick admits that his moral compass “may be a bit warped” and in many instances levels no judgement on the criminals he studied.

“It was a community resource, it was a buzz,” he says.

“If I look at what’s there now – has it improved in the last 30/40 years? No, it hasn’t. Is the area better now? No, it isn’t.”

Dick paints a picture of the old East End as a perversely inclusive community, where “ordinary people would have a dabble” at illicit activities.

“I used to go to this pub when I was young and there was this woman in there called ‘Sally Shirt’ – she was Stratford’s Liz Taylor,” he says.

“She always had a box of shirts – she worked in a factory – and everyone went there for shirts.

“You could get your school uniform shirts, work shirts. She was always surrounded by gin and tonics and a plume of cigarette smoke, with a few boxes of shirts at her feet.”

The former labourer believes he would have “nowhere near” the kind of access into criminality today.

Long gone are the “informal” days of catching up with criminals over a pint.

“In those days things were out in the open. The stolen goods market was out there,” he says.

“You’d chat to people and if you wanted a suit they’d know someone, you could buy stuff, it was easy.

“Nowadays the equivalent would be drugs and would I be prepared to do that and go into those clubs? I don’t know – it’s definitely more dangerous.”

When the docks begin to shut down in the late 70s criminals had to look for new ways to turn a fast buck.

“Eventually drugs started to replace theft,” he said.

“And everything changed. Even relatively straight people could buy a bit of dope and sell it. Anybody can do it – there’s no great skill in it.

“It’s capitalism at its rawest – buying cheap and selling dear. 

“Violence started to come into it in a way that it never did with theft. The violence that existed back in the day was between people of a similar ilk. 

“Nowadays it’s the lower level drug runners that often get caught up in crime as they protect their turf – often with violence.

“Gangsters were limited to their own kind. The underworld was made up of tried and tested criminals who had been in prison a few times. A lot of the violence was limited to that community.”

‘I made Patsy Kensit cry’

Dick has worked for a number of universities as well as taking on big research projects on the drug trade for the Government and organised crime more generally for the EU.

He also once made model Patsy Kensit, 53, cry when researching her father’s criminal links for BBC One’s Who Do You Think You Are.

Jimmy “The Dip” Kensit’s involvement in crime was shocking, even to Hobbs.

When presenting her with the evidence she burst into floods of tears.

Dick recalls: “She got a bit emotional. I thought that was the money shot but they didn’t show that bit – I think she did a deal!” 

Dick looks back fondly on his life on the outskirts of crime.

“As a career it was amazing,” he admits. “I look back now and can’t believe I was able to do what I did.”

The Business: Talking With Thieves, Gangsters And Dealers by Dick Hobbs is published by Bonnier Books UK (paperback, £8.99).

The East End has changed beyond recognition over the decades[/caption]
Hulton Archive - Getty
The Kray Twins were close friends of TV star Barbara Windsor[/caption]
The Kray Twins pictured with American heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston[/caption]
Camera Press
Charlie Richardson was one-half of the infamous Richardson brothers, who were rivals of the Kray Twins[/caption]
Dick Hobbs claims Patsy Kensit broke down in tears after hearing about the alleged crimes her father committed[/caption]
New book The Business documents Dick Hobbs’ dalliances with the criminal underworld[/caption]

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